By Steve Flairty
Tim Philpot has encountered a virtual assembly line of fractured lives standing before him in his years as a Lexington family court judge, starting in 2004. There, he sees a perpetual cloud of sadness and an awakening to heartache that exists in too many lives.
Before him come agonizing problems that rip at the fabric of this, and other communities—and not easily solvable: drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and child neglect, and homes and lives harmed by divorce.
The last issue mentioned, divorce, particularly galls him. Particularly, and ironically, “easy” divorces. The state of Kentucky calls the justification for dissolution of marriage unions, simply, as “irretrievably broken.” And though Judge Philpot has signed divorce decrees saying that phrase for thousands, he thinks many of the marriages could have been salvaged with a little help and a little more understanding of what the institution of marriage really is.
He decided to write a book about his belief, a novel called Judge Z: “Irretrievably Broken.” It is scheduled for release on March 15.
“The book is a fictional account about the death of marriage in the American culture,” said Philpot. “The book is both autobiographical and pedagogical.”
Autobiographically speaking, anyone who knows Tim Philpot, or has read his first book, Ford’s Wonderful World of Golf, published in 2012, can pick out the parts in the new book that connect closely to the author’s life. That includes Judge Atticus Zenas (sometimes called “crazy” for his conservative and Christian-based beliefs), who has a love for golfing (Philpot is a former local champion golfer), and the judge’s father in the book, Johnny Zenas, who once was a drunk and nurtured to wellness by a long-suffering and compassionate wife, “Beulah,” quite like Philpot’s own parents.
Philpot said that he has many composite characters in the book, but these few are pretty straightforward matchups.
I sensed a strong feeling of authenticity in Philpot’s writing; no doubt that is because the narrative springs powerfully from his personal experiences. Proverbially, you couldn’t make this stuff up—at least, in terms of not having a background to evoke it.
The pedagogy, or teaching, that Philpot mentions may require some background, which he supplied.
“’Irretrievably broken’ is a common legal term in all divorce cases,” said Philpot. “A marriage must be ‘irretrievably broken’ to be legally dissolved. Yet, no one knows what that means. Hearings that are supposed to happen by law do not.”
The judge considers divorce procedures today “akin to a high-speed express train instead of the old local train that made stops along the way.”
Even with the cover of “no fault” divorce, made law in Kentucky in 1972, he considers that not the original intention of the law.
In the novel, the 50-year-old presiding judge Atticus Zenas, or “Judge Z,” is shown as firm, but compassionate while he hands out decisions in a plethora of cases. He does it often with a “throw up your hands in resignation” kind of lightness, even humor, but there is no doubt he feels the frustration of watching humans fail and his inability to stop them.
There’s the First World divorce case issue of who gets the dog and who gets the UK basketball tickets. Support payment cases are routine, and there are paternity suits to navigate. A youth named JJ doesn’t have a chance with his upbringing. Judge Z sees that and tries to mentor him outside the boundaries of his judgeship, with limited success.
The youth later dies, a tragedy the judge takes hard.
Additionally, the docket usually includes, he said, “a dozen or more men in green and orange jumpsuits, color coded, stashed in the jail holdover, picked up for failing to appear in court.” These are mere samplings of many more such cases.
Judge Z’s heart is heavy, and the fact that his loving wife, Angelina, died two years ago doesn’t make things easier. He leans on his relationship with his widowed mother, Beulah, who lives in Sadieville, a short drive from Lexington. Her Sunday afternoon chicken dinners after church on Sunday mornings, along with the two’s productive conversations, help ground him.
A young minister at the church, wise beyond his years, delivers meaty sermons and sometimes joins in the meetings with Beulah and him. But, weekends too quickly pass, and Judge Z has to go back to the chore of docket work.
Then one day in court, a Chinese wife (Zhiu vs. Yang) asks the judge, in broken English, what it means for a marriage to be irretrievably broken. The supposedly learned man can’t answer…because he doesn’t know. The humble woman sets off a firestorm in Judge Z’s psyche, and he delves into the matter with the help of a UK law professor who teaches a seminar on marriage.
Cast long in a rut of negativity, Judge Z begins to rock the boat. Many would think, as we find out, that he began to do things judicially in a non-judicious manner.
The novel proceeds from there on a fast track with suspense, ironic twists, and some touching moments. The courtroom is created for that, it seems, but the cogs are moving outside the building also. Included, too, are national news media involvement with slanted messaging, making Judge Z appear to be a crackpot.
Philpot shares the good, bad, and ugly in nearly all his scenes. They fairly rivet with melancholy, but also provoke a hope that something might transpire to make things better.
A highlight of Philpot’s prose is that his natural sense of humor appears not infrequently. I laughed out loud when, in a courtroom scene where an angry girlfriend of a divorce petitioner leaves the premises, the author wrote:
She quickly got up and stalked out of the courtroom on high heels that clicked and clacked like curses as she shoved her way past the courtroom doors. She tried to slam the door, but it only hissed on its air springs—making a loud sigh of furious frustration. That was followed by a muffled string of obscenities as she reached the outer hallway. Jesus was mentioned but she wasn’t praying.
The reader is rewarded with a downright enjoyable book that captures the imagination, I believe, of ones on any side of the marriage/divorce viewpoint. Mostly, though, it demonstrates contemporary American society deeply experiencing a fierce culture war.
Don’t expect much regarding same sex marriage unions, however; he spends little, if any, time focusing on it in this book.
Within the pathos of the tenor of the novel, Philpot shows us an assortment of characters that are, thankfully, not one-dimensional.
Even his best of character players have skeletons in their closets, and his evil-minded ones will surprise with some positive elements of humanity emerging. Philpot comes from a Christian evangelical background, yet knows that people can’t be divided, simply, into all good or all bad individuals. He’s reality based.
In summation, my verdict is that Judge (and author) Tim Philpot should be commended for creating a story that challenges our understanding of marriage, plus prods us into working much harder to make it work. The institution is simply bigger than the priority much of society makes it.
Perhaps Tim Philpot would like us to ask: Irretrievably broken…are we sure?
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)